We can remember early in our careers feeling a little panicked those first few days or weeks of writing workshop. Because, you know (we’ll whisper this part to you) our kids didn’t write. We’d teach our hearts out during our minilesson, send our students off, and then do our best to confer. Conferring was impossible, though, because most of our kids weren’t engaged for more than a few minutes. We felt like we had to rush from one kid to another to help get them back on track, which meant we weren’t really digging into any conferences. We were putting out fires.
Time and experience have taught us two things: Writing stamina will be low at the beginning of the year, and we have to teach our kids how to build and maintain their writing stamina, how to fill their writing time with writing work.
Now we welcome the short writing stamina and squirrelly behavior during writing workshop. It’s a challenge we welcome. Watch how much we can help our students grow.
We’ve found that doing focused work during the first month of school to help raise our students’ engagement and create opportunities for them to have choice and take ownership of their work during writing workshop leads to growth in their writing stamina. These are the areas we focus on during the first month of school, and we roll them out in our classroom in this order: gradually increasing the amount of time spent writing, keeping a chart of writing work that’s always OK, making plan boxes, and implementing independent projects.
Gradually Increasing the Amount of Time Spent Writing
At the conclusion of our first minilesson, when our students have been given the chance to talk and then write down story ideas that are burning inside them, we send them off to write for three minutes. Three minutes seems to be the magical amount of time that most students can sustain that first day, especially after the rehearsing we did at the carpet during our minilesson, while also leaving them feeling like it wasn’t quite enough time. Our goal is for it to be a short enough time that, when we stop, we hear, “That’s it?” or “I have more to write!”
We chart our time on a bar graph at the front of the room, and then discuss our plan for adding to the time the next day. It’s the first time our students will hear us say that we gradually grow goals in our classroom—we wouldn’t jump from three to 10 minutes in one day, most likely, just like we couldn’t go from running three miles one day to 10 the next. And so, we’ll likely write for five minutes the next day, adding just two minutes to our time before, and giving our kids a pep talk before they start: “Remember how writing for three minutes felt yesterday? Some of you felt like you had more you could write, that you could have written for longer. Others felt like it was just the right amount of time. Today we’re going to grow it just a little, so that we get stronger over time, but it won’t feel like a lot more. Today we’re going to write for five minutes, and our goal as a class is to do anything we can to keep our pencil moving for those five minutes.”
If we notice writers are beginning to drift before the five minutes are over, we’ll stop and chart how long we wrote. We want the time to be an accurate reflection of what our class as a whole can do, because when a handful of writers start to drift, it can change the atmosphere for even the engaged writers.
Our goal is to make it to 25-30 minutes of writing time by the end of the month, growing by two minutes every day that we’re able to. There will, of course, be days we have to stop before we meet our goal, and we’ll discuss that as a class when we chart our time on our bar graph: What didn’t work for us as writers today that we can change so that we meet our goal tomorrow? There will also be days when a two-minute jump isn’t enough, and if everyone is still writing when we’ve reached our goal, we’ll let them keep going until some are off task. In these ways, we’re working to gradually build stamina—the gradualness doesn’t make it feel so hard—while also allowing for chances to be reflective about how we’re doing.
It’s important to note that the time our students are writing becomes an ongoing background focus. We don’t keep a clock ticking in front of our students, because we want their focus to be on writing and how it feels to be engaged. Instead, we keep an eye on the time and stop our students as they begin to disengage from their writing. Guiding our students back to ongoing reflection about their writing work and how it affects the time they’re able to spend writing helps them build an awareness of their engagement.
Keeping a Chart of Writing Tasks That Are Always OK
Fourth graders sometimes have this sense of being “finished,” and once someone feels finished, they’re less likely to start back up with something else. In our first week of writing workshop, we work to dispel the myth of being finished; we begin teaching that a writer’s work is never finished—there’s always more work to do, and our job is to fill all of our writing time with writing work. Some students are able to sustain work on a single entry or piece for a whole workshop period, whereas others do better when they do a little work on a few different things. We’re happy with almost any writing work that’s happening, as long as it’s sustained for the length of the independent writing time during workshop. To support our students in finding things to do as writers, we gradually add to a chart that we call “Writing Work That’s Always OK”:
Of course, the chart isn’t all-inclusive; there are plenty of things that they could do as writers that aren’t on the chart, and what’s on the chart changes from year to year, based on what we’ve focused on as a class. Some students are able to identify and follow through on writing work that isn’t on the chart—knowing things a writer might do is more inherent for them. For those students who need support choosing things they might do, we refer them to the “Writing Work That’s Always OK” chart.
We author this chart with our students gradually, and everything on it is familiar to them—they’ve done them many times before, often beginning with some type of guided practice—so we’re confident that they know the writing work required of them and that they can do it independently.
Making Plan Boxes
Having our students create plan boxes after the minilesson has been a game changer for us and our students’ stamina in writing workshop. We learned about them from Day by Day by Ruth Ayres and Stacey Shubitz. The basic idea is that at the end of the minilesson, students create a plan of three things that they’ll work on during independent writing time.
Before introducing written plan boxes, we spend at least a week of students turning and telling their partner three things they’ll do during independent writing time. We encourage them to use the charts from the minilessons along with the “Writing Work That’s Always OK” chart to help them name three things.
Once our students have had practice and support making oral plan boxes, we introduce a written plan box. During our minilesson, we explain each part of the chart below and show how the sample plan boxes at the bottom were made using our class charts. The active engagement is time for students to make their very first plan box and get feedback from their partner before leaving the carpet.
Most of our students make their plan boxes in the next empty space of their writer’s notebook, right where they plan to work that day. Others devote a special section of their notebook to their plan boxes. Some students use a plan boxes sheet that we give them to support them a little further in the creation or organization of plan boxes (or both).
Plan boxes have helped our students be thoughtful and deliberate about the work they’re doing, as well as helped them talk about their work. Most days, most of our writers don’t get to all three things in their plan box. They might choose to revisit that plan box the following day, picking up where they left off. At its heart, a plan box helps to reinforce the attitude that there’s a lot of work to be done, and helps students make an explicit, although tentative, plan for each day to help them sustain writing time.
Giving Students Choice and a Voice
We have independent projects running throughout the year. In our room, independent projects are writing pieces in any genre with any topic, chosen by students. Once the projects have been launched, usually after our first unit of study, we devote one day of writing workshop to them each week. The work on independent projects doesn’t have to stay within that one day, however; students can add their independent project to their plan box on any day (we encourage it to be number three so as to guarantee some work within our class genre each day first), so that it’s truly part of their ongoing work as a writer. Having this engaging option to return to whenever helps our students sustain their writing time.
Do you have some squirrelly writers in writing workshop? Take a deep breath, and maybe even smile, because after a few weeks of focused work on this, you’ll have a lot of growth to show.